Despite two chairlift accidents in New York over the past week, ski industry representatives ensured patrons this week their ski centers are as safe as they can be.
A 5-year-old Greenwich boy was injured after falling out of lift chair at Willard Mountain ski center Tuesday, just two days after a 44-year-old skier died from injuries she suffered in a fall from a lift chair at Hunter Mountain in the Catskills.
The Greenwich skier, Wyatt Skiff, was listed in fair condition at Albany Medical Center Wednesday.
“This is the second incident we’ve had of a person falling out of a chair in 20 years,” said Willard Mountain general manager Jeff Fitzgerald. “We do about 45,000 skier visits a year, so if you multiply that over 20 years, and that’s two incidents in more than a million loads.”
In both of the recent New York accidents, riders apparently fell from the chairlifts despite having successfully boarded with the restraint bar in the proper position.
In the Willard Mountain incident, the skier fell before the first support tower, a distance lift chairs cover in about 18 seconds, Fitzgerald said.
“The time-frame is very short in how fast this all happened,” he said.
The state Department of Labor visited the mountain Wednesday morning and looked over the chairlift operation, Fitzgerald said.
“It is not lift-mechanical-related at all,” he said. “We looked at the chair. We looked at the safety bar. We looked at the mechanics of the lift.”
Broader industry statistics also show chairlift accidents are uncommon. According to the National Ski Areas Association, while statistics are kept on accidents related to lift malfunctions, data aren’t widely kept with regard to passengers falling out of chairlifts for other reasons.
In Colorado, however, those incidents are recorded, and from the winter of 2001-02 to 2011-12, just 2 percent of all falls from chairlifts were a result of mechanical or lift operator error.
A total of 86 percent of such incidents were attributed to skier error, with the remainder being caused by medical issues or unknown factors, according to the association’s report.
“If you’re going to have a situation whereby somebody is going to fall off the lift, it would be more typical on the load or the unload,” said Scott Brandi, president of Ski Areas of New York Inc. “You don’t normally have somebody who’s successfully loaded, sitting in the chair, and they fall off the lift. In most cases, it has to do with the skier leaning over to buckle boots or twisting to talk to a friend or scooting forward to get snow out from under their butt or something that causes their body position to move.”
Brandi and Fitzgerald pointed out chairlift operations statewide undergo multiple inspections before the season starts, and weekly tests and inspections are conducted during the season itself.
Most chairlift incidents are minor and occur when inexperienced or inattentive skiers fail to get situated properly in the chair at the loading platform.
“These things happen,” Brandi said. “Do I remember a fatality ever happening in New York state that’s lift-related? I’ve been in the business 30 years, and I don’t remember one.”
According to the National Ski Areas Association, since records began being kept in 1973, there has been just one death at a New York ski area as a result of chairlift malfunction — as opposed to passenger error, medical issues or undetermined causes. That happened at a now-closed ski area in Warwick, in Orange County, in 1973.
Over the same period, there was just one chairlift malfunction in New York state that resulted in injuries to passengers: a “rollback” malfunction in 1978 at Hunter Mountain that injured four people.
Spencer Montgomery, co-owner and manager of West Mountain Ski Center in Queensbury, agreed most chairlift mishaps are minor and happen at the loading platform, with skiers standing back up and catching the next chair to the top in a matter of seconds.
The best way to avoid problems, according to Fitzgerald, Brandi and Montgomery, is to pay attention to the signs, use the restraint bars as they are intended to be used and ask for assistance if you’re a beginning skier.